Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt Maverick MP Tawfik Okasha stripped of parliamentary membership

EgyptMP Tawfik Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador last week has cost him his parliamentary membership. Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Independent MP and high-profile TV anchor Tawfik Okasha's decision to host Israel's ambassador in Egypt Haim Koren at his home on 24 February and discuss sovereign and national security issues with him have angered political circles and MPs this week, with parliament approving on Wednesday to strip him of his membership.


Parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al announced at the end of a six hour stormy session that 465 MPs (around 80 per cent) approved that the complete parliamentary membership of Okasha be lifted. Only 16 MPs rejected the decision, while 9 abstained from voting.


Abdel-Al said new elections should be held in Okasha's constituency (Nabarouh at the Nile delta governorate of Daqahliya) within sixty days.


A report by a seven-member investigative committee accused Okasha of violating the principle of the separation of powers and disrupting Egypt's deep-rooted parliamentary rules and precedents when he recently took the unilateral decision of meeting with Israel's ambassador in Egypt Haim Koren.


Hassan Bassiouni, a former judge who led the committee, told the assembly on Wednesday morning that the seven members of the committee recommended that Okasha be banned from attending one nine-month legislative session after they found him guilty of showing disrespect to parliamentary rules and acting against the sovereignty of state institutions.


"The committee, which was formed on Sunday and questioned Okasha on Tuesday, decided that he was not able to defend himself or show that he received prior approval from any sovereign state authority before he held his meeting with the ambassador of a foreign country (the ambassador of Israel)," the report said.


Read out by Bassiouni, the report stressed that Okasha's decision to discuss national security issues with the ambassador of a foreign country on issues like Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam could cause serious damage to Egypt's strategic interests.


"We know that sovereign state authorities are heavily involved in conducting negotiations on this issue," said the report.


"Egypt's position in these negotiations could be negatively affected by Okasha discussing such a sensitive issue with a foreign ambassador," the report added.


The report also argued that the Vienna agreement for diplomatic relations designates the foreign ministry as the official body legally and constitutionally authorised to conduct contacts with foreign diplomatic corps in Cairo.


The parliament’s speaker Ali Abdel-Al was keen to stress that Egypt deeply respects its international and foreign agreements and treaties," especially the peace treaty with Israel.


"This treaty showed that Egypt's strategic policy is aimed at spreading peace in the Middle East," Abdel-Al said.


Abdel-Al also argued that "what we’re discussing here isn’t Okasha's meeting with the ambassador of a foreign country because Egypt's parliament highly respects the embassies of all foreign countries in Cairo.”


“What we’re discussing here is an issue directly related to the national security of this country," Abdel-Al said.


MPs erupted in anger when the committee's head Hassan Bassiouni said it had recommended that Okasha be just banned from attending one complete legislative season.


MPs shouted in one voice, asking for Okasha to be completely stripped of his parliamentary membership.


When Abdel-Al put the committee's recommendation to a vote, it received no support. Abdel-Al said that "we have another recommendation other than for Okasha be stripped completely of his parliamentary membership.


But in order to meet this objective, and according to parliament's internal by-laws, two-thirds of MPs should be available and each one should vote in person - whether he approves of the recommendation or not."


Abdel-Al also indicated that parliament should listen to Okasha and allow him to defend himself.


But as Okasha was not available at the time, Abdel-Al asked the parliament to go ahead and administer the vote.


Okasha opted at the beginning to watch the session from a big TV screen in the nearby Pharaonic lobby of parliament. Shocked by the fierce reaction against him on the floor, he tried to enter the meeting chamber, but was prevented from doing so by Abdel-Al's orders.


Depressed by the final result, Okasha decided to leave parliament. On Wednesday night and shortly after the anti-Okasha vote, his private TV channel "Faraeen" announced that it will go off air and it will completely suspend its programmes.


"The channel offers its gratitude to the great Egyptian people and all its viewers in the Arab nation, and announces the complete suspension of its programmes. The board of directors has decided to liquidate the channel, freeze its activities, and put it on sale," a notice aired by the channel stated. The channel also expressed its “sincere thanks” to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.


In his daily TV talk show on Tuesday night, Okasha said he played a big role in ridding Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood and that his next job was to rid Egypt of Nasserites and leftists.


"The Nasserites and leftists are just as skillful in causing damage to Egypt, so all the liberals – especially businessmen – should join forces with me to achieve this objective," Okasha said.


Nasserist MPs, though few in Egypt's new parliament, form a strong and vociferous lobby that was able to rally deputies behind voting down a new civil service law in January.


They were also up in arms against Okasha on Wednesday, accusing him of grand treason and tarnishing the image of late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who was an avid enemy of Israel.


Independent MP Mustafa Al-Guindi said: "I am a Nasserist who saw how millions of Egyptians raised the posters of late president Abdel-Nasser during the revolutions of 25 January and 30 June at Tahrir Square."


"When I saw them I realised that I am a Nasserist and when one of us defames Gamal Abdel-Nasser in a meeting with Israel's ambassador he should be a big shame to this parliament," Al-Guindi said.


Mustafa Bakri, an independent MP and a self-described Nasserite journalist, argued that "Okasha was not in a meeting with the ambassador of a foreign country, but he was meeting with a spy for America and Israel."


"But Okasha's crime was not confined to this because he exploited his TV talk show to tarnish Saudi royal family members one by one," said Bakri.


Bakri, a controversial figure himself, also asked "Egypt's security agencies to unveil the real contents of Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador." Bakri claimed that Okasha directed insults to president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi many times during his meeting with Israel's ambassador in Cairo.


MP Khaled Youssef, a high-profile film director, said he supports expulsion of Okasha's from parliament not suspension of membership.


"I decided to join my colleagues in taking this decision. Not because of the peace treaty, which I rejected from the beginning, but because Okasha insisted on defaming Nasser," said Youssef.


Youssef also wondered how "Okasha gave himself the right to go to Israel's ambassador and appeal to him to save Egypt from the crisis it currently suffers because of Ethiopia's Nile Dam."Some MPs, however, refused to follow the line of the Nasserists.


Mohamed Mounir, an independent MP, argued that "a strong reaction against Okasha could send a message to the outside world that Egypt does not respect the peace treaty with Israel."


"I am afraid to say that some MPs, who want to settle personal accounts with their colleague Tawfik Okasha, also want to impose their say on all MPs," Mounir said.


Liberal MP Anwar Al-Sadat, the nephew of late president Anwar Sadat who signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, also refused to join the anti-Okasha chorus.


"Why was the decision against Okasha rammed through parliament without following the correct procedures or taking some time to listen to his defence," Sadat said.


Sadat said he fears that MPs are working under orders to expel Okasha from the parliament in any way possible.


Irritated by the argument, Abdel-Al insisted that the anti-Okasha procedures are in line with the constitution and the house's by-laws.


"Furthermore, do you not all remember when an MP -- Ashour Nasr -- insulted president Sadat while he was delivering a speech in parliament in 1977? The house decided to drop his membership for the same session," Abdel-Al said. Okasha is the second MP to leave Egypt's recentlyly convened parliament in two months.


The first, former judge and appointed MP Sirri Siam, submitted his resignation in protest at what he dubbed speaker Abdel-Al's autocratic practices.


MPs agreed that the quick and fierce reaction against Okasha was also intended to send a tough message to other "unruly MPs" like flamboyant lawyer and chairman of Zamalek sporting club Mortada Mansour and journalist Abdel-Rehim Ali: you also could lose your membership if you insisted on going down the Okasha road.


The angry reaction against Okasha in parliament came very early on Sunday's morning session, with Kamal Ahmed, a long-time Nasserist firebrand MP, hitting him with his shoe.


Upon entering the plenary chamber, Okasha was surprised by Ahmed hitting him with his shoe and punching him in a very violent way, shouting loudly with the words "this is what the traitor deserves."


As chaos and noise erupted in the plenary chamber, MPs hurried to stop Ahmed's violent assault against Okasha.


Both Ahmed and Okasha were ordered to walk out of the chamber by parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al who referred them to an ethics committee.


In statement to reporters outside the debate chamber, Ahmed said Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador in Egypt was highly provocative to him and the Egyptian people. "I was especially angered by Okasha insulting late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who refused signing any peace treaties with Israel," said Ahmed.


Ahmed said he does not care if he loses his parliamentary membership. "I have no concern about this membership and I warned Okasha that I will hit him with my shoe whenever I meet him," said Ahmed.


The majority of MPs, both independent and party-based, told reporters that though they condemn Ahmed's "very vulgar reaction" against Okasha, they would never forgive Okasha having dinner with the Israeli ambassador. "This is an unprecedented crime and it is not enough for Okasha to be stripped of his parliamentary membership, but he has also to be put on trial on charges of "grand treason," said Mohamed Zeineddin, an MP with "the Future of Homeland" party. Zeineddin said he and hundreds of MPs are in daily contacts to organise a unified stand against Okasha, finally approving to drop his parliamentary membership "and vindicate the Egyptian people."


On Monday, majority MPs voted in favour of stripping Okasha of the right to attend 10 plenary sessions for insulting the House speaker Abdel-Al.


A report prepared by a special parliamentary committee concluded that Okasha was guilty of directing an insult to Abdel-Al in a plenary session on 22 February. The committee said many MPs testified that Okasha showed disrespect for the speaker and disrupted old parliamentary rules and precedents during the session.


The committee also indicated that video footage proves Okasha interrupted speaker Abdel-Al many times "in a very impolite way," telling him loudly that "you were not the right man for this post." The committee originally decided that Okasha be banned from attending three plenary sessions only, but upon the request of many MPs, parliament voted in favour of stiffening the penalty.


Abdel-Al also announced in Monday's morning session that another special committee had been formed to take charge of questioning Okasha for hosting Israel's ambassador in Egypt Haim Koren and discussing sovereign and national security matters with him.


The committee will be led by judicial expert and independent MP Hassan Bassiouni. Once MPs took note of Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador last week, they decided to table requests with speaker Abdel-Al, asking that Okasha be punished for "committing the unprecedented crime of meeting with Israel's ambassador in Egypt" .


The majority of MPs, led by novelist Youssef Al-Qaeed, described Okasha's dinner with the Israeli ambassador as "a violation of the Egyptian people's campaign aimed at halting any moves towards normalisation with Israeli officials.”


Al-Qaeed, a presidential appointee to the house, said a statement entitled "MPs against normalisation" gained the support of hundreds of MPs.


"The statement asked speaker Abdel-Al to refer Okasha to either an ethics committee or let MPs vote whether Okasha be stripped of his parliamentary membership altogether."


According to the statement, "Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador represents a crime against Egypt's new parliament and its MPs."


"While each Egyptian MP represents the nation as a whole, the nation still considers Israel as Egypt's first enemy, as long as it abuses the rights of the Palestinians," said the statement.


The statement also argued that Okasha's meeting with the ambassador contravenes Article 110 of the constitution and Article 370 of parliament's internal bylaws, stating that MPs who violate or fail to abide by the rules of their duties could lose their parliamentary membership upon the approval of two-thirds of MPs.


MPs were also appalled that Okasha had asked the Israeli ambassador to visit parliament. "MPs would rather set the building of Egypt's parliament on fire than have the Israeli ambassador visit it," said the statement.


"Okasha is by no means authorised to invite any ambassadors - and Israel's ambassador in particular - to the Egyptian parliament," the statement argued.


The “Support Egypt" coalition, a parliamentary bloc with more than 250 MPs, also announced that they condemn Okasha's meeting with Israel's ambassador and have said that they will not hesitate voting in favour of any decision against him.


Ihab Ghatati, an MP from Giza and a member of the Support Egypt coalition, told reporters that he would organise a sit-in for two hours each day if parliament failed to approve that Okasha's membership of the body be terminated.


Mustafa Bakri, an independent MP and journalist well-known for his fiery anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric, said he has also tabled an "urgent statement", requesting that Okasha be referred to questioning before a special parliamentary committee.


"Okasha's three-hour meeting with the Israeli ambassador on 24 February represents a violation of the national security of Egypt," said Bakri.


According to Bakri, Okasha has committed “three crimes.” “First, he urged the Israeli ambassador to request his government mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia to help solve the problem of Ethiopia's Grand Nile Renaissance dam in exchange for providing Israel with 1 billion cubic metres of Egypt's quota of Nile water," said Bakri.


"The second crime is that he urged Israel to build 10 schools on Egyptian land in compensation for the Israeli air strikes that demolished Bahr Al-Baqar elementary school in Sharqiya governorate [in April 1970], and the third is that Okasha always likes to describe Egyptians as schizophrenic, refusing to consort with Israel despite having approved of a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979 in a public referendum."


Bakri queried Okasha's right to discuss highly sensitive and sovereign political and economic issues with the ambassador of a foreign country without prior approval.


Bakri, a Nasserist journalist, also accused Okasha of holding a forged PhD certificate. While registering to obtain his parliamentary membership card last December, Okasha wrote down that he earned a PhD in management of mass communication institutions from the University of Lakewood Bradenton in the US state of Florida. "I insist that the PhD document is fake and Okasha should be referred to trial for forgery charges," said Bakri.


Speaker Abdel-Al said the committee in charge of questioning Okasha will also investigate "the forgery issue."


Meanwhile, Okasha insisted that his meeting with the Israeli ambassador last week did not go against the constitution or parliamentary rules.


Okasha, a controversial media figure and presenter on his own Al-Faraeen channel, who often pins the blame for Egypt's problems on an “American-Zionist conspiracy” strongly defended himself on Saturday in a meeting with a limited number of parliamentary correspondents.


Okasha said he had “full constitutional authority” to invite Israel's ambassador to his home, have dinner with him and discuss a variety of political issues.


"I know that such a move could represent an affront to the feelings of most Egyptians who still reject normalising relations with Israel," said Okasha.


"I tell those who aim to go too far to the extent of describing my meeting with Israel's ambassador as a crime and even threatening to organise a protest sit-in that what you do is just a kind of media show, and that you are still in 'kindergarten' politics."


Okasha cited Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati as stating that "Egypt parliament's by-laws does not include any article that prevents MPs from consorting with Israel."


By contrast, argued Okasha, the Egyptian constitution stresses that the state must fully respect its international agreements, not to mention that Egypt and Israel have full diplomatic relations.


Okasha claimed that many constitutional experts assured him that it would be a grave mistake if MPs decided to drop his membership.


"They told me that Article 93 of the constitution obliges the state to respect its international agreements and that Article 151 grants the president of the republic the right to sign and ratify foreign agreements and treaties only upon parliament's approval," said Okasha, adding that "this means that MPs and parliament are granted a say in the state's policies and treaties and how they should be implemented."


According to Okasha, the Camp David accords in 1978 and the peace treaty in 1979, signed by late president Anwar El-Sadat, is clear in stating that both Egypt and Israel must do their best to have normal ties in terms of forging full diplomatic, economic and cultural relations, and halt any kind of boycott or hurdles that might block free movement of goods and individuals between the two countries.


Some MPs are against taking a strong punitive action against Okasha, albeit they condemn his “grandstanding practices."


"This is a maverick MP who wants to steal the show all the time," said deputy speaker Al-Sayed Al-Sherif. He, however, warned that "any action against Okasha could send a message that Egypt's parliament is acting against the state's policies and its accords with foreign countries."


"I think Okasha's punishment should be left to the people and voters, rather than to parliament and MPs," he said.


An Israeli state-affiliated news website, Al-Masdar, reported on 24 February that Koren was surprised by Okasha inviting him to a dinner meeting at his home.


"I know that Egyptian MPs still insist on boycotting Israel, but I know that MP Okasha has his own parameters," said Koren according to the report, adding that "Okasha was able to win the admiration of millions of Egyptians who are always keen to watch his talk show on his private channel Al-Faraeen."


"Okasha on last week's show extended an invitation to me to meet him in his home to discuss the economic problems that Egyptian people are suffering from," said Koren.

"Okasha told me that he believes that Israel is the key to solving Egypt's problems,” the ambassador said.

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